Minnesota Position Breakdown
Quarterback- So. Phillip Nelson started the final 7 last year but was very inconsistent. He should finally have a cohesive unit blocking for him, barring another bout with the injury bug, and has improved in the offseason. Mitch Leidner is a viable option at backup, but isn't a great passer and has no game experience. If we have to go to our 3rd QB, then we're in trouble as its a true freshman with a bit of a wonky throwing motion. This unit has a lot of potential, but needs to show it before getting a better grade.
Running Back- Donnell Kirkwood should break the 1,000 yard rushing mark this year. Kirkwood is a bruising back with good vision and surprising agility. Behind Kirkwood is true sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr. Williams Jr (aka Nugget) is another bruiser as he tips the scales at 240 pounds. Rodrick is even more of a North-South runner than Kirkwood, but is very tough to bring down. After those two are a few guys with major questions to answer. The guy with biggest expectations from fans is true freshman speedster Berkley Edwards (younger brother of former Michigan star WR Braylon Edwards). Edwards started off fall camp strong, but suffered a high ankle sprain and the timetable for his return is unknown. He may end up redshirting. The player most hyped by the coaches was David Cobb. Cobb has yet to produce on the field and seems to lack the balance necessary to break tackles and gain additional yards, especially in the Big Ten. The third guy that could potentially make some impact this year is former JUCO transfer James Gillum. Gillum started last year as the go to guy, but fell off the map. Gillum has also missed a lot of time in fall camp and I doubt he sees the field much this year.
Wide Receiver- The Gophers have lacked a go to receiver last year after the graduation of Da'Jon McKnight. That is again the case headed into the season after AJ Barker left in a very public and well documented manner. The Gophers do return Derrick Engel who had 108 yards on 4 catches in the bowl game against Texas Tech. Starting opposite Engel will be the "Rochester Rocket" Isaac Fruchte. Fruchte has good speed as his nickname would indicate to go along with good speed, but needs to consistently get separation and make the catch when the ball does come his way. The Gophers will start K.J. Maye out of the slot. Maye lined up at RB last year, but didn't produce much so they moved him outside. Maye is smaller and shifty, which makes the slot a natural home for him. Maye was one of Nelson's favorite targets in fall camp. The Gophers will likely trot out three talented true freshman at WR this year as well as the veterans. Drew Wolitarsky, Eric Carter, and Donovahn Jones all figure to play a role this year with Donovahn Jones having the highest ceiling of the group as he is an elite athlete. Sophomore Andre McDonald's status with the team is still a question heading into the UNLV game, but if he does manage to stay with the team and get out of the doghouse, he is probably the team's most talented receiver. This is another unit that has a lot of potential, but a lot to prove.
Grade: C-Tight End/H-Back/Fullback- This is a unit that will likely see a large uptick in production this year with the switch to a more power-run offense setting up play action passing. The guy most likely to put some numbers up is redshirt freshman Maxx Williams. The Waconia native is a great athlete who will line up at a few different spots this year but will always be a threat in the passing game. Some other key guys at this position are Drew Goodger and Lincoln Plsek who are both more blocking tight ends than receiving tight ends though both are capable of catching some passes. Another guy that makes this unit so strong is senior Mike Henry. Henry isn't great in any one area but is both a solid blocker, and a solid receiver out of the backfield. The lone freshman that could potentially see the field this year is Nate Wozniak. Wozniak is a giant standing at 6'9" but is quite lanky and wouldn't be an effective blocker at this point and he should probably redshirt. There is also some depth at this position thanks to the walk on program and guys like Alex Bisch (who's unavailable for UNLV with an injury) and Sahr Ngekia.
Offensive Line- The strength of the offense should be in the trenches this year as the Gophers return everyone from a group that plowed the way for 222 yards rushing in the bowl game. While there are questions at a couple of positions (LT and C) as to who will start, everyone that will be starting has started. The two best blockers on the line are likely RT Josh Campion and LG Zac Epping. This group has taken the new power run identity to heart and is a very physical group. Not only is this group talented, they're also deep. The unit is legitimately three deep at a few spots along the line and two deep everywhere.
Defensive Line- This is without a doubt the best defensive line under head coach Jerry Kill. Senior defensive tackle Rashede Hageman is an absolute monster and will draw double teams all season after recording six sacks a season ago. Playing alongside Hageman are some other veteran players. At defensive tackle the Gophers return everyone and add back in Roland Johnson, who tore his ACL last season. The Gophers are legitimately three deep at defensive tackle and are a year more experienced and stronger than a season ago. On the outside of the defensive line, the Gophers must replace DL Wilhite. While Wilhite was the leader at DE, the Gophers return everyone else and finally have some talented upperclassmen at both ends. While the DE's are a bit smaller than most Big Ten DE's, they're also faster and should be able to get to the quarterback with some consistency.
Grade: BLinebacker- While the Gophers lose three key guys from last years squad at this position, they should at the very least match their production. The Gophers do add in two touted JUCO transfers in Damian Wilson (MLB) and De'Vondre Campbell (OLB). Wilson will get the start at middle linebacker against UNLV and is much better at shedding blocks than his predecessor Mike Rallis. Campbell will start the season behind James Manuel, but looks like an SEC linebacker and I wouldn't be surprised if he overtakes Manuel fairly quickly. Starting at the other OLB spot is the leader of the group and the whole defense. Aaron Hill was the Gophers most consistent linebacker last year and has stepped it up in the offseason. Backing up Hill is Nick Rallis who while short (5'11"), has good instincts. While this unit is not yet particularly deep, they have the potential to be better than last year's unit.
Secondary- The strength of the defense last year was without a doubt the secondary as seniors Troy Stoudermire and Mike Carter led a secondary that made huge strides. This year the Gophers must replace Carter and Stoudermire, but get everyone else back. The Gophers appear to be just as strong at corner this year as both Derrick Wells and Eric Murray are getting talked about as guys with a future in the NFL. Wells is likely out for the opener. Starting in his spott will likely be Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Both Boddy-Calhoun and Murray are very good cover corners while Derrick Wells is a jack of all trades at corner. Behind those three are a couple of former JuCo transfers (as was Boddy-Calhoun) in Martez Shabazz and Jeremy Baltazar. The freshman most likely to play out of this unit is Jalen Myrick. While Myrick is most likely to see the field on Special Teams he is very fast and a great athlete who the staff expects to be very good in time. At Safety the Gophers will start Brock Vereen and Cedric Thompson. Backing them up are sophomores Antonio Johnson and Demarius Travis. The Gophers will likely be able to survive an injury or two in the secondary this year thanks to depth.
Brice Marich also contributed to this report